These Women Fight Dirty

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What would be the best way to characterize the rivalry between the women's ice hockey teams of the U.S. and Canada, the only squads to ever win a gold medal? Spirited, perhaps, or impassioned. Those would be Olympian ways of putting it—and largely incorrect. "We dislike each other very much on the ice," says former U.S.A. star Cammi Granato. "There's no game I'd rather lace up the skates for. It's always an intense battle. Off ice, there's sort of a mutual respect. On ice, you're out for blood."

This Yankees—Red Sox, Canadiens—Maple Leafs—style feud is filled with body thumping and trash talking and spiced by a growing inventory of real or imagined insults ranging from stick swinging to flag stomping. Sample dialogue: "They are taught from a very young age to use their stick," U.S.A. forward Tricia Dunn-Luoma says of the Canadian team. "There's a lot of body contact on the boards. Is it dirty? It borders on it." Says Canadian defenseman Colleen Sostorics in response: "I don't think it's taught. It's not what we focus on, but if that's how she feels, that's fine. We never want to lose to them, so we always want to play our hardest, and I would agree we do whatever it takes to get a goal. I think that's a great, admirable trait in a hockey team."

Heading for an another inevitable gold-medal showdown at the 2006 Winter Olympics, Team Canada and Team U.S.A. are alone at the top of a women's sport struggling mightily to develop outside North America. They have contested the final of every significant international tournament since the International Ice Hockey Federation first sanctioned the women's world championships in 1990. Canada won eight consecutive world titles until Team U.S.A.'s 1-0 victory last April in Sweden, decided by an overtime shoot-out. The Americans captured the inaugural Winter Olympics tournament at Nagano, Japan, and Canada rebounded in 2002 to take the gold at Salt Lake City, Utah. Neither team has lost an international game to any contender but the other. "The rivalry makes women's hockey what it is," says Canada stalwart Hayley Wickenheiser, who played for a Finnish men's pro team in 2002-03.

It's a rivalry infused by almost familial connections among the players: they know one another like sisters and fight like brothers. Canadians cross the border to play for NCAA schools; Americans go north to get experience with club teams. Four-time All-American Angela Ruggiero and Canadian forward Jennifer Botterill were teenage opponents at the Nagano Olympics and later roomed together as Harvard teammates. "You know every little thing," says U.S.A.'s Kelly Stephens of Seattle, Washington. The father of Canada defenseman Delaney Collins was principal of the high school Stephens attended in British Columbia. "You get to know the players, you get to know the coaching styles, so it's really a chess match out there," she says. U.S.A. coach Ben Smith says, "They never surprise us, and we never surprise them."

Now apply a subtle cultural ingredient to the mix. Hockey is Canada's religion, which would make the Americans sporting infidels. "Hockey is everything to them," says newly named U.S.A. captain Krissy Wendell, who won the 2005 Patty Kazmaier Award for top female player in college hockey. Canadians embrace the sport more fervently and play it more aggressively than any other nationality does. "They're gritty, feisty, cocky at times in a way where they carry an aura," says Granato, who will be part of NBC's Olympic and NHL broadcasting crew. "They get under your skin."

And under your chin, with lumber, which keeps the Yanks talking about the D word. Says Alaskan goal tender Pam Dreyer: "Our team doesn't realize how dirty we probably are as well. We just see how beat up we are after a [Canada] game. The slashing, the bumps—it tends to become not quite a men's style game but as physical as you can get. It comes from how they grew up playing."

A 13-game exhibition series preceding the Nagano Olympics seeded the hostilities. In one game, Granato and Wickenheiser engaged in a high-sticking duel. Then Wickenheiser and Ruggiero squared off to fight. By the time the teams reached Nagano, tension had reached Mount Fuji heights. In an otherwise meaningless first-round game, a flurry of illegal body checks—open-ice hitting is not allowed in the women's game—resulted in 48 penalty minutes. U.S.A. rallied from 1-4 in the third period for a 7-4 victory, setting the stage for its gold-medal upset win.

Four years later at Salt Lake City, published rumors had Team U.S.A.'s players stomping on the maple-leaf flag on their locker-room floor in a psych-up ceremony. "There was no validity" to the story, Granato says. "I was highly offended because as captain, I just wouldn't allow that to happen." But the damage had been done. The Canadians were frothing. And during the gold-medal final, U.S. referee Stacey Livingston dealt a lopsided number of penalties to Canada, which added to their fury. "The refereeing was atrocious," recalls Canadian captain Cassie Campbell. "But we expected it, and we were numb to it. The scoreboard clock could have fallen, and we were still going to skate around it and win." Canada triumphed, 3-2.

What's next? Before the 2002 Games, Team U.S.A. leaned on veterans from Nagano, and the squad spent five months playing together. This time around, Smith, no sentimentalist, cut vets Shelley Looney and Granato after the 2005 tryout camp. "In the past six or eight years, we had the same faces," says Smith. "The team now is the future."

Team U.S.A. is drawn primarily from Title IX—fueled colleges and is characterized by speed and playmaking finesse. But in the current pre-Olympic series, Canada won 8 of the first 9 against the Americans, raising doubts about the wisdom of chopping Granato and prompting Smith to experiment with Ruggiero at forward. In the series finale on New Year's Day in Winnipeg, however, Wendell scored twice in a 5-3 victory. Now the questions: Are the Canadians too old? Have they peaked too soon? Have the Americans lulled them into a false sense of security? "The Americans are not sandbagging. They're scared to death of Canada right now," says University of Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller, Team Canada's coach at Nagano in 1998.

So the situation is flip-flopped, with Canada now favored for gold. Canada coach Melody Davidson has followed the 2002 U.S.A. strategy. She named 12 Olympic veterans to the 20-woman roster, and they have been together since Aug. 1, including 22 games against Triple-A midget (15- and 16-year-olds) boys teams in Alberta. Canada will rely on special teams and aggressive forechecking to trigger a quick-strike offensive attack. "Hayley Wickenheiser—there are some qualities of hers I don't admire, but the way she drives to the net ... it's like a wave coming at you," says Dreyer.

Even the wave herself knows that history becomes meaningless once the puck drops in the gold-medal round. "It comes down to one game, and any team can win that game," says Wickenheiser. "Even if we haven't seen their best, we know what they are capable of, and we fully respect that. We focus on ourselves, on our team, on playing our kind of hockey." Canadian-American hockey. Don't forget your mouth guards, ladies. You will need them.